Piece by Piece

Joe D’s ’02 off-season sped Pistons rebuilding; Indiana a more common example

The acquisition of guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton in 2002 set the stage for one of the most impressive eras in Pistons history.
Gregory Shamus (Getty Images)
It’s the 10-year anniversary of Joe Dumars’ triumphant summer – the one that two years later made it possible for a summer of triumph. The seeds for the 2004 NBA title were sown in a three-month span of the 2002 off-season, when Joe D first grabbed Tayshaun Prince in the draft, then signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent and finished up by swapping Jerry Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton.

That was a Triple Crown summer – Joe D hit a home run in the draft, another in free agency and completed the cycle by swatting a third out of the park via trade. Prince, Billups and Hamilton joined Ben Wallace, and less than 18 months later came the trade for Rasheed Wallace that completed a remarkable starting five and led to the second great era of Pistons basketball.

Because the Pistons won that 2004 title without a certified superstar – only Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace had so much as made All-Star game appearances at that point, two apiece – it became accepted that Dumars was focused on that particular path to championships.

It’s a foolhardy notion, one Dumars again brushed aside recently.

“I’d love to have (a superstar) – in a heartbeat,” he said. “I’m not here to re-create the ’04 team. That was that team and then you move on. We had some games this year, it would have been great to have a guy who could just put it on his back. The first chance we get to get one of those, I’ll be all for it. Trust me.”

Don’t misinterpret him. No, he’s not deliberately shying away from finding a legitimate No. 1 option to stack a team with five No. 2 types. But he’s not turning away able No. 2 types, either, while waiting for a No. 1 to knock on his door and ask for a job. The alternative to building around a superstar – and Joe D’s list of current superstars would be shorter than the generally accepted public notion, and those types only become available under unusual circumstances – isn’t to kick back and wait until one parachutes in from above.

The alternative is to consistently improve incrementally. When the Pistons were driving toward their 2004 title, I called the great Jack McCloskey – and how the Hall of Fame continues to overlook him is scandalous – to see how he felt about one of his proudest draft choices, Joe D, building a contender via the same incremental approach he used. Trader Jack told me it was always his intent to upgrade the roster by 10 percent a year. And he wasn’t opposed to superstars, either, as his offer to the Lakers in 1979 of his entire roster for a rookie named Earvin Johnson attests

It’s the approach the Indiana Pacers have used under Larry Bird, as well. The Pistons are where the Pacers were a few years ago, on the outside of playoff contention but with some nice young pieces in place. The only holdover from more than three years ago is Danny Granger. Then they added Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George in successive drafts. Darren Collison and George Hill came in trade. With their salary cap straightened out as older and more costly players exited, the Pacers were then able to add David West in free agency.

None of those players qualify as superstars, of course. Yet the Pacers were the East’s No. 3 seed this season and became the first East team to move to the second round. Their win totals climbed from 32 to 37 to a prorated 52 this year (the Pacers won 42 in a 66-game schedule). The Pistons won a prorated 31 this season (25-41) – one game off of what the Pacers won two years ago.

In Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko, the Pistons have a nucleus in place not dissimilar to what the Pacers had two years ago – before adding Collison, Hill, West and then Leandro Barbosa during the current season. If the Pistons get the contributions they believe still possible from players like Austin Daye, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, they might even skip a step in their evolution.

But if Joe D nails this year’s lottery pick as he did with Monroe and Knight – and there’s a decent chance that will be the outcome, given the strengths of this draft – then the Pistons will have added, at minimum, one more piece. If Kyle Singler comes over from Spain, wins the backup spot to Prince and proves an upgrade there, that will be two more pieces. It’s a deep enough draft that with their two second-rounders – the Pistons pick 39th and 44th – there might be a player of Singler or Jerebko’s caliber available.

The gap between Detroit’s 25 wins and Indiana’s 42 – from the lottery to the No. 3 seed – seems considerable at the moment. A good summer by Joe D and his staff narrows it. A Triple Crown summer might eliminate it altogether.